May 08, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

The 12 bachelor's degree graduates from the Calvin Prison Initiative's Class of 2024
Twelve students in the Calvin Prison Initiative program are earning their bachelor's degrees in 2024. An additional 24 men will earn their associate degrees.

In 2015, Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections entered a unique partnership—a first-of-its-kind in Michigan. Through the Calvin Prison Initiative, each year a cohort of men begins their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree behind bars. The goal of the program, which is funded entirely by private donations and grants, is to improve prison culture and reduce recidivism rates by equipping prisoners with an education.

But, as the fifth cohort celebrates their graduation behind bars this Friday, May 10, it is clear that the outcomes are going well beyond what was imagined at the outset less than a decade ago.

Nine graduates from the Class of 2024 share their experience in the CPI program, and what they hope to do now with their Calvin education.

What is your single greatest takeaway from the CPI program?

Shawn Davis: The genuine care the staff and professors have for the student body … This is the first time in my life that I can recall meeting people who wanted me to succeed without them benefitting from my success in some way.

Jerron Davis: My greatest takeaway from the CPI program is that a solid community is essential when taking on a lofty task.

Matthew Parker: The most inspiring and memorable arrangement that never deviated from its format was the continued efforts, discipline, and sacrifice we received from the professors and the CPI staff. The dedication, commitment, and loyalty they revealed to the students at Handlon was conveyed through a love and compassion of Christ. I could not even begin to think of the battles that were fought on our behalf which will never be overlooked by me.

Why is it important to offer a Christian liberal arts education behind bars?

David McLeod: Prisons and jails are merely holding facilities where societies send their problems to forget about them. But we all know, problems tend to resurface over time if left untended. Usually, when time has passed and the prison sentence is over, societies’ problems parole back into the same neighborhood. And those who do not get out share their problem behavior within the prison system, thereby creating a dangerous environment for inmates and staff alike. Thankfully, a Christian liberal arts education can break this cycle. It has for me! A Christian liberal arts education is character formative. This educational opportunity has molded, shaped, and formed me into a better person. I am no longer the person that entered prison, but a thoughtful and caring person that wishes to be a healer to those in need and no longer the cause of their pain. Imagine this outcome occurring behind all of our bars, eventually our prison and jails would become fewer.

Chris Bernaiche: My CPI education transformed my life which is something I was unable to do for two decades on my own within typical MDOC classes or group meetings.

Kristopher Stidham: I think it is our duty as image bearers of the Triune God to offer broken people the opportunity to pick-up the pieces of their lives and reshape them in a meaningful way that reflects their creator. Prison is made up of people who are lost and hurting, and if we turn a blind eye and cannot help the lost and hurting in our communities find redemption, how can we ever hope to one-day find redemption ourselves?

How does it feel to be a Calvin University grad?

Carlon Hughey III: I don’t have much to compare it to. In terms of significance, for me being a college grad is in a league all of its own.

Cornail Richardson: This education gave me a purpose and instilled hope within me. As a child I can remember living around the corner from the Calvin campus and going up there to play and run around. I even remember riding my bicycle through the dorms. One time they left the gymnasium open, and I went inside to play basketball. I was “Destined to be Knighted.”

Kristopher Stidham: It feels amazing; I am the only person in my family to graduate with a degree let alone a degree from Calvin University. GO Knights!

How has being part of the Calvin Prison Initiative shaped you?

Emil Sporcic: It gave me my personhood back and gave me a sense of purpose. It also helped me to better empathize with those around me and especially those I have hurt.

Chris Bernaiche: The CPI program transformed me from a man who was stuck in individualism to a man who now asks himself, “What can I do to improve the community, what can I do to leave the world in a better place?”

Jerron Davis: Being part of the Calvin Prison Initiative has shaped me into a more socially aware and community-oriented individual.

Kristopher Stidham: I have learned to think before I act, I now take the feelings of others into consideration, and I have been equipped with an all-inclusive heart. I am confident in the fact that I am a healthier person, a better father, and a restored man because of this education … I am thankful to be a part of something that is bigger and greater than my self-centered individualistic nature … Today, I am finally proud to be me.

What do you hope to do with your Calvin education?

Cornail Richardson: I plan to continue to mentor, and do prisoner observation, and facilitate breaking the chains two times a week. This education is not for me, but for whomever I might come in contact with. This education is meant to help others along their journey.

David McLeod: I hope to be a beacon of Christ’s light to those in need … I have only two years until my earliest release date, and I plan on using this time to write sermons that I can then video tape upon release. I believe these will help edify the community to the fact that Christ is in prison as well.

Shawn Davis: I hope to use my Calvin education to continue facilitating classes that focus on communication, conflict resolution, and critical thinking, as I believe the lack of skills in these areas is a major contributor to why many inmates find ourselves in this carceral setting.

Matthew Parker: I am currently a peer mentor in an addiction group two nights a week. My goal is to go back to the Veteran’s Unit at Saginaw Regional Facility and create a similar type of group alongside the mental health counselors, assisting inmates with substance abuse, and any type of addiction. I have saved much of the material taught to me by the best social workers, pastoral counselors, psychologists, and sociologists in the business. They have built in me the confidence I need to lead men on a path of healing, renewed self-examination to explore their best selves.

Carlon Hughey III: My stretch goal is to continue on into my master’s and potentially PhD in order to be a professor who upon going home will be able to come back into prison to teach for one of the college programs.

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